Ostensibly this was Yamaha's new model intro, a serious event that takes place every year to introduce their ATVs to the press. Festivities started off with some serious claims from Yamaha: The ATV industry, they tell us, has grown in the last five years from 100,000 to 500,000 units sold per year (that's more than the approximate 300,000 street bikes sold per year). They also detailed the ground-breaking features of the entire ATV line -- snorkel air intake for you U-boat commanders out there, shaft drive in the utility models, and a large accessory selection to customize the vehicle to any purpose.
After waking the assembled journalists, Yamaha drove us up the mountain and the fun began. We figured with the underwhelming Internet access in rural areas the "farm implement" class ATVs would bore the typical Motorcycle Online reader, so we decided to stick to the sport models.
On the first day we went up a mountainside for a quick introductory ride, which started on a wide-graded dirt road, perfect for the Blaster that I began the day on. We were all starting to choke on the dust when a light rain came by to wet the ground a bit. The day was starting to look perfect, untill our guide took us up what seemed like a near vertical incline. The four wheel drive models that I was smokin' down the road with the Blaster proceeded to pull off into the distance and disappear in the tight, woodsy trails.
There was a spot after a tight right-hander where the trail headed up a hill and turned really steep. The Blaster started to bog near the top, just as I smacked the undercarriage on a stump in the trail. This sends me sliding backwards down the trail for about 100 feet, the front tires not grabbing due to the steep angle (and wet ground) and the rear end promising to send me over backwards. Smart guy that I am, I tried the exact same tactic the second and third time, bogging the little two-stroker again and again, and slapping the stump. After three tries I finally got around the stump and up the hill. When I caught up with the group they were standing around smoking cigars and looking bored. A kindly soul then traded me for a Wolverine.
The Wolverine seemed to be made for the steep, twisted paths and game trails of Silver Country. It destroyed all that stood in its path. Rocks, stumps, even piles of timber would not stand in the way of the mighty Wolverine. After miles of high-speed riding on trails sometimes narrower than the bike, we popped back onto the road again, so I coerced a smaller member of the expedition to give up his Banshee, and took off. Flat, wide dirt roads with lots of runoff room are the Banshee's forte. What might have been a long, boring ride on one of the 4X4s turned into the 'Wallace GP,' with the other Banshee pilot and myself bombing down the hill flat out. It occurred to me that there might be traffic coming the other way -- but only after it happened. The Banshee, with it's monster horsepower, was not difficult to get out of the ditch. No harm, no foul.
After returning from the first day on the trails, we retired to Wallace's Jamiesons Inn, an old brothel from the mining days. The oldest profession is no longer practiced there, but the food is excellent, and the open bar was appreciated.
The next morning, after overloading a bit at the buffet breakfast, we were off to the staging area for the day's ride. We were to take a 60 mile jaunt over the border to Montana for lunch. Then a 40 mile ride back to a ski resort, where the Yamaha semi would meet us.
I dawdled talking to a suit from Yamaha and ended up getting stuck with a Blaster again. As we started up the switchbacks on the eight- to 10-foot wide road, I had a whole 'nother view of the Blaster. With a bit of 'Two Stroke Technique,' the little 200 hustled up the moderately steep incline. I would hesitate at the Blaster's All-Terrain-Vehicle status -- it's just a cool four-wheeler. The hairpins were especially thrilling, leaning all the way off the quad and throwing rocks as the rear-end comes around. Going uphill allowed for exceptional boldness as I only had the slope to run into if I got going too fast. On the downhill side it was a bit more hair raising. One of the others noticed how much fun I was having on the junior sport model and made the mistake of trading me for a Banshee. He had been having trouble controlling the bucking beast on the skinny road; the several hundred foot drop-off didn't encourage him either. What the gentleman didn't know was that the route was going to turn into a hilly road with lots of sweepers -- Banshee territory. I was having the time of my life dive-bombing down a road half as wide as the one yesterday when we came to where a bridge wasn't.
The guide stopped us in time to avoid instant death, and showed us the way across: A near vertical slope leading to a rock strewn stream bed and a nearer-to-vertical exit up the other side, with more rocks. The guide was riding a Kodiak (largest of the farm implement models at 400cc) that had cut a flat earlier in the day. Even with a flat, the doughty Kodiak bounced down the slope and rolled up the other side effortlessly. Buoyed by this, I immediately pointed the twin down the incline and gassed it. I almost made it. I powered through most of the stream before the rear wheels left the rocks and spun freely. It was a matter of physics: if you can't transmit the power, it won't do you any good. The other two wheel drive models had similar problems and all of us had to get wet getting them out, but the fourwheelers (underpowered or not) just made short work of the stream.
I ended up on a Warrior after the water trap and fell in love. The torquey 350 was a nice counterpoint to a morning of two strokes. It was relaxing, even going really fast. The rain from yesterday had worn off and we were starting to get dusted again, making the going slow. There was very little in the way of a breeze so the dust just accumulated. The front three riders would be fairly close together but the farther back you got the more you had to hang back, so the wait when we stopped for stragglers got that much longer. We arrived at the lunch spot at a ranch in Montana well before the other groups.
After another generous meal, I hopped back on the Warrior and we shot some pics of a few of us pitching it sideways down the dirt road. This annoyed the folks still eating. We thought it best at this point to ride down to the local store to pick up some souvenirs. It may be legal riding an ATV in these towns, but you still get puzzled looks from the populace -- maybe it was the brightly-colored riding gear.
The midday sunshine had completely worn off any moisture from the day before, and by the time we left to meet the pickup crew it was a dust-fest. We rode through the unending clouds down a dirt road parallel to the interstate, and next to a stream. Occasionally through the dust clouds we stole brief glimpses of the pretty countryside. About halfway back the Kodiak (remember the one with the flat tire?) blew its muffler off, and had to be fixed with bolts from the front skid plate. Easy, as it comes equipped with a full tool kit. After it was repaired, I rode it a bit; ATVs are fun, even a really big one with no top end. As such, I could afford to worry less about rear ending someone in all the dust, and just kick back and relax the rest of the way.
ATV Reviews The Blaster
If you've never ridden a four wheeler before the best way to describe the Blaster is to compare it to a 125cc MX bike, a 200cc two-stroke that's light as a feather, and very temperamental. It's great for dirt road blitzing and dune running, as I found out on the way to the riding area. Down the medium-width fire roads the bike was on fire; light feathering of the clutch overcame any power deficiencies, but then the first set of trails we hit went straight up the side of a mountain. The twisty, rutted, stump-in-the-middle-of-the-road trails were not easy on the little 200. Needless to say, I was a bit frustrated with the Blaster after the first day. I had the opportunity to ride the Blaster again the following day on our trip over the mountains to Montana. In an environment consisting of skinny timber roads and switchbacks the Blaster really shined. Only the Banshee could keep up with the sprightly Blaster flat out down a lumber-strewn road, especially in the corners. The suspension was up for the task, too: although not as plush as the other models, this rig was built for light weight and not comfort. In a nice advantage over MX-based two-wheelers, both the Blaster and its big brother the Banshee feature oil injection, making for far less preparation before a day of riding.
In the end the Blaster was a ton of fun when in the proper setting. A strong case can be made for the Blaster, as it is the second cheapest ATV in the lineup (after the 90cc four-stroke Badger). The four-stroke Timberwolf 2WD 200cc is the closest thing to it, and does not even come close. Not in performance, or in price ($3,899 to the Blaster's $3,449).
Four wheel drive, semi-automatic transmission, dual luggage racks. . . sounds like a farm implement. Until you go 50 mph down a 30 inch wide trail, with chipmunks, stumps, and boulders jumping out in front of you. Its long travel suspension, sport gearing, and relative light weight make it the ideal machine for 'adventure riding'. The steering is a little different than the two-wheel-drive machines, as the front wheels are pulling too. After the initial countersteer and weight shift, one must turn into the corner to bring the bike around. A totally confidence inspiring ride. On the long road back from the twisties, the Wolverine showed good top end performance as well, able to hustle along with the rest of the pack with a little to spare. Deciding to take a turn across a boulder-strewn steam might be a bad idea on a lot of four wheelers (especially ones not blessed with four wheel drive), but not the Wolverine. In a half-stand the powerful 350cc four-stroke pulls you up, down, and through anything. The automatic clutch took a little getting used to after coming off the other sport models (a rear brake takes the place of the traditional clutch lever on the auto clutch models). One quickly adapts.
You might be thinking, "that's it, sign me up," but at $6,149 the Wolverine can be a little daunting. It does have all the possible features a modern ATV'er might want: Oil cooler, 34mm Mikuni carb, sport-styled independent suspension; but hey, six grand is six grand.
This shouldn't be legal. That's the first thought that goes through your mind on the Banshee. Then you remember that you shouldn't say things like that about ATVs as the Consumer Products Safety Commission could be reading, and they would love to take your ATVs away. When this model came out years ago, I wanted one. It just looked evil. I think, like many other teenaged fantasies, it would have killed me.
Typical of any high-performance two-stroke, the power on the Banshee comes on like a switch, but on this one it doesn't end for a few thousand rpm. As you shift and put your shoulders back in their sockets, they are immediately popped right back out with a push of the throttle. Obviously this machine is not made for the tight twisties. It can handle them fine, but you'll probably pass out from boredom before too long, or pitch yourself off a cliff. Either way you'll want to get out in the open with this beastie. Sharing the same basic engine as the RZ350 road-going two-stroke of the 1980s, the Banshee has a propensity to break loose the rear tires -- but that's a good thing. This inherent ability to loose traction in the rear makes all that mind numbing power much easier to control. Just a flick of the throttle and shift of weight in the appropriate direction and voila! you're turned. All the aspects of performance are well covered: Killer suspension, disc brakes all around, water cooled engine and a pair of 26mm Mikunis powering the twin cylinder 350cc power plant.
Its limitations are practicality, but when it comes to an ATV like the Banshee, who cares? Just give me the juice. If spending $5,899 on a toy seems a bit much, ride one. It'll change your outlook. The Warrior
For those of you like myself whose ATV education ends in the early 1980's, the Warrior is like my personal ATV, a Honda 200X, except better in every way. It has a powerful 350cc four-stroke motor with a very linear powerband, killer suspension, and despite such amenities as a reverse gear and electric starter, it's only 11 pounds heavier than the Banshee. The big bike comes on the power immediately, and continues to pull all the way up to redline. It seemed to be the most useful all-around ATV of any of the Yamaha sport models. You can fit luggage racks onto the front and rear of the machine, and with its four stroke single-cylinder powerplant, it'll pull most loads. We feel that in a variety of riding situations one would desire a more controllable machine like the Warrior, as opposed to the polar opposites of the lightweight, tiny Blaster or the Banshee shred machine.
Features include: 36mm Mikuni carb, six speed gearbox, multi-adjustable suspension front and rear, and an engine counterbalancer for less vibration. At $4949 it's a good chunk of change, but overall the Warrior is a great bike for a variety of settings.
The New Big Bear 4X4
Yamaha would never forgive us if I skipped over their brand-new-for-'97 Big Bear 4X4 sport-utility model, designed to compete with Honda's best-selling TRX 300. Having attended an ATV safety course in preparation for this event, I was able to ride the Honda just 10 days earlier at the training center. It was a very basic machine - really heavy, stable and colorless. The Honda's forte is farmwork and training ATV squids at safety courses. Then there's the Big Bear. The new Bear is a mesh of the wicked Wolverine and the older Yamaha Big Bear model. It has the gearing, and some of the suspension of the Wolverine, and the utility rig's stability. After riding all the seat-of-the-pants sport models it was (for lack of a better word), mild. Overall, we found it to be a good blend of sport and utility. Taking off down the trail we immediately noticed that, unlike true utility models, the Big Bear does not have the annoying ultra-low first gear, but top speed is only about 35 mph, and we would have preferred a taller top gear. The steering was light, and it handled the rough stuff well, traversing most terrain with ease. Yamaha seems to have achieved their goal of having the Big Bear 4X4 be a jack-of-all-trades. Like all compromises, the Big Bear doesn't excel in any one area, but hits the TRX squarely between the eyes. It's lighter, faster, and more nimble. If your weekend plaything needs to punch the clock on Monday, this could be your ATV.The Lowdown
I hate to admit it, but none of the bikes reviewed here are more worthy of the moniker "All Terrain Vehicle" than the 4X4s. The Wolverine has a great combination of the fun side of life, but still with the day-to-day work thing built right into it. Yamaha informs us that the Wolverine isn't a big seller, and that people who rely on ATVs for their livelihood want something a bit less sporty and more domestic (thus the new Big Bear). Go figure. The sport models are great heaps of fun, but oddly enough are rather limited to what terrain you can effectively use them on. At a motocross course, a two-wheeler would smoke you. If you are lucky enough to have dirt roads you can ride on, most of these ATVs are great fun. If dunes are your thing, well of course there's nothing better than a Banshee. Yamaha seems to have a lock on the sport market right now, with the product liability issue keeping less hardy corporations out. All of the sport models fill pretty big niches, unlike the very competitive utility market. The Warrior is the four-stroke. The Blaster is the cheap two-stroke, and the Banshee is the oh-my-god monster.
Motorcycle Online is interested in your opinions of ATV coverage. The manufacturers would like us to cover the utility ATVs heavily, as those are their best sellers. The problem we have with this is that Internet access in rural areas (presumably where most utility models are purchased and used) is about as prevalent as parkas in Puerto Rico. We would like to cover the sport models, as we feel those are the ones that someone with a computer and a need to skip town on the weekends (that's you guys) are most likely to care about. Post your opinions on this, and other ATV issues as well, below in our BBS.